The thriller set on a Metro-North train heading out of New York city is 65-year-old Liam Neeson’s fourth collaboration with Spanish director and Hitchcock enthusiast Jaume Collet-Serra. The film is a kind of thriller that has become rare in Hollywood, enjoyable and forgettable once you leave the theatre.
It is a kind of thriller that you will enjoy despite the absence of superheroes and interplanetary travel. The film draws its thrill from a whodunit, race-against-the-clock scenario. The first ten minutes are used to give a quick roundabout of MacCauley’s (Liam Neeson) story, including a whiplash opening credits sequence that shows him repeatedly taking the same Hudson Line train from his picturesque suburb to his job selling insurance in the city. Then this one day, we also get to know series of problems in MacCauley’s life. Like? Pay college tuition for his children while he lost his job just a few months before his retirement. Also that he was in the NYPD which kind of justifies a simple insurance guy’s ability to handle guns and goons.
Ready with the background on the insurance agent, we board the train from the Grand Central Station and the thrill begins with MacCauley finds himself face-to-face with Joanna (Vera Farmiga), a flirty femme fatale who makes him a curious offer. He has to identity a certain someone named Prynne who isn't part of the usual commuting crowd and if he succeeds, then he will be awarded a decent chunk of change. And if not, his family will be killed.
Anyone who is familiar with the Taken series will know that you do not mess with his brethren. Despite the predictable end what makes the film watchable is the way Collet-Serra and writers Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle tease out the tension throughout the protagonist's long voyage home, keeping the pyrotechnics to a minimum until the final reel.
You recognise the use of Hitchcock’s toolbox in many shots with some vertigo style dolly zoom used for effects. Collet-Serra has already proved himself the Master of Suspense with Unknown and Non-stop with Liam Neeson. The Commuter is like a fanboy letter with the plot ripped out of the train-set flicks to a fight scene that takes a few cues from Shadow of a Doubt. This is your ride if you want to ride along without thinking too much, with a script that keeps the guessing game going as MacCauley tries to figure out which of his fellow passengers is his target and which one may be targeting him.
Liam Neeson has done similar roles, but that doesn’t make him any less good at it. He brings enough gritty conviction to the table to make it feel like he's the undisputed king of action movies and he invests even the silliest of them with the gravitas of a serious actor. He's backed by a solid supporting cast, including Vera Farmiga, who only appears in a few scenes but quickly makes herself a pivotal player; Patrick Wilson, playing an old cop pal who becomes increasingly suspicious; and a slew of character actors depicting a multi-ethnic New York straddling many classes.
There are moments in the film when you wonder if there will be more than the protagonist pacing up and down the train. An agitated and panicked MacCauley scans the aisles, checks tickets, interacts with suspicious characters in aggressive verbal and physical confrontations. The setup is filled with promise of compelling twists and turns awaiting on this journey upstate. The film ensures interest for enough of its 104-minute length, even with its “same situation, new location” approach, but, uses its specific location to its advantage both for storytelling and suspense.
Like in all Collet-Serra movies, tech-credits are attractive with the camera gliding back and forth through the cars as if it were attached to a zip-line. One memorable fight sequence seems like a single take-or at least one that was seamlessly stitched together — and involves Neeson contending with an axe, a gun, several seat cushions and lots of glass. The filmmaker brings at least one riveting sequence on the speeding train that would be at home alongside classic train action spectacles of movies past. At his most inspired, Collet-Serra may just be the heir apparent to Tony Scott: an eager showman and a conductor of thrills, whether the script has earned them or not. The Commuter lifts the gloomy mood of the post the holidays-temporarily.